Published on Voices

Why are we blind to human progress and development? Harvard’s Steven Pinker has an explanation.

Harvard’s Steven Pinker paints a hopeful picture with data. He believes a humanitarian revolution has been underway for generations. “Our species has a history of violence,” the renowned psychologist and writer said at the World Bank, but humankind is less violent than it ever has been. We are living through the most peaceful era in history. Taking from his 2011 bestselling book, “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” Pinker clicked through graph after graph to prove it.

State-sanctioned slavery? Abolished everywhere. Capital punishment? Almost abolished everywhere. For the most part, no more dueling, blood sports, judicial torture, debtors’ prisons or witch-hunting. And here’s an interesting data tidbit: A person in England has 1/50th the chance of being murdered today compared with the Middle Ages.

Pinker said the revolution began with the consolidation of states in the Middle Ages when money and trade began to facilitate more contact between people. It picked up speed by the increased literacy ushered in by the printing press and during the Enlightenment. The more people read fiction, drama, history and journalism, he said, the more they were able to inhabit other people’s minds. Increased empathy, Pinker said, “decreases the taste for cruelty.” I agree, wholeheartedly.

We are also living in an unprecedentedly peaceful era right now. Wait a minute. Really? Yes, Pinker had even more slides to prove it. (It feels like cheating to get the gist of an entire book in 40 slides, but still very helpful.) Deaths caused by war have fallen for 70 years. The number of civil wars and wars between states have declined since 1990. Rates of rape, murder, domestic violence, corporal punishment of children, hate crimes, and the sexual abuse of children are declining in many countries. There have been no wars between two great powers since the Korean War, and no wars between developed nations since WWII.

“There have been sickening peaks [of violence] and valleys but the overall trajectory is unmistakably downward,” Pinker said.

How and why this peace? Violence certainly has not been bred out of humans, Pinker said. There hasn’t been enough time for that. Alas, the potential to exploit, dominate and take revenge still exist inside us. Rather, Pinker said, historical circumstances have supported the motives that counter violence in humans. Motives like self-control, empathy, a moral sense and reason—in other words our “better angels.”

It comes down to institutions and norms, Pinker said. Trade, democracy, and the international institutions—which have all increased in the second half of the 20th century—disincentivize war. Democratic government prevents people from preying on each other. Commerce makes it cheaper to buy something rather than steal it. And people are simply more educated now than they were before. Globalization creates empathy.

“Violence is a social dilemma,” Pinker said. It’s tempting to an aggressor but ruinous to the victim. Since we can all imagine ourselves as victims, we are all better off avoiding violence.

Updating his 2011 numbers during the presentation, Pinker said there was some bad news.

Fundamentalist terrorism, the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine have erased the equivalent of 14 of the last 24 years of progress in the overall decline of violence. The good news? “That’s the only bad news.” For example, if we simply extrapolate the data trend in the global abolishment of the death penalty over the last few hundred years, Pinker said it’s forecasted to be completely abolished by 2026.

The problem is that we are blind to this progress. We can’t see the forest for the trees. How many of us call our societies peaceful? And yet, historically speaking, they are. To take an oft-repeated example (also repeated by Pinker) we fear terrorist attacks and plane crashes even if we are much more likely to die in car crashes. (We’re also blind to all the progress in human development over the last century: poverty is ending and wealth is increasing, life expectancies are up, child mortality is way down, global inequality is starting to decline, to name some. Pinker said this is the topic of his next book.)

This is just how the mind works, Pinker reminded us. And now I’m reminding you. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call it the “availability heuristic.” We are more likely to remember or imagine the examples of violence that we encounter. And since “if it bleeds, it leads” is the mantra of the news industry we are encountering a whole lot of it these days. Barraged by it seems more like it. We also anchor our perceptions on the first information we encounter, Pinker said, i.e., the “anchoring heuristic.” Anyone guilty of checking their phone first thing in the morning? I am. So there you go. Leaders (and wannabe leaders), moralists and all the talking heads don’t help the situation. Pinker wisely cited American singer songwriter Tom Lehrer, “Always predict the worse and you’ll be hailed a prophet.”

Here’s the thing though.

There’s a wide gulf between knowing how our minds work and actually controlling them. Between intellectual awareness that things are better than before and finding a way to stay sane and positive amid the fear and fear-mongering. Pinker didn’t discuss how to cross that gulf—one that seems impossible to bridge by people who experience violence or poverty day-to-day. And yet, it is the work of an individual lifetime, wherever you are—unquantifiable, hard-won and mysterious. Humanity depends on it.


Dani Clark

Senior External Affairs Officer, Human Development

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